Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
Courage and friendship
A young person reaches out to an older neighbour
A young person reaches out to an older neighbour
When I met Sofia outside her house on my way to the postbox, I knew straight away I wanted to be her friend. She was standing triumphantly above a little heap of leaves as though it were a mountain she had climbed. Her hair was thin and silver, like combed moonlight. Her face broke into a smile as I approached. “Beautiful dress!” she called. Before I knew it, she was holding both my hands in hers, telling me I should come for coffee anytime. “Greek coffee, real coffee.”
Did she really mean anytime, I worried, as I rode my bike to her house the next morning with a small bag of stonefruit from the local shop. Heart racing, resisting the urge to turn around and go home, I reminded myself of the intention I recently made: to start reaching out to older people. The divide between generations in my community is noticeable and seems a loss. I miss the company of older people.
The air was hot and the sky churned with purple storm clouds. With every push of the pedals a different fantasy swung into view. I imagined myself as Sofia’s adopted granddaughter in a few short months, groaning at a massive plate of grilled fish laid before me. “But you know I’m vegetarian!” I would plea, cheerfully digging my fork in. I imagined Sofia in a few short moments, shaking her broom at me, ordering me to get back on my bike. “I was just being polite!” she would cry. I imagined the two of us weeding her garden side by side in the summertime, she instructing me of the Greek names for the flowers, giggling at my poor pronunciation.
Riding faster, I felt the wild sensations of hope and fear in my body. Chest crackling with nerves. Gut simmering with shyness.
In the face of the unknown, my mind was doing what it does well: presenting me with a pendulum of possibilities to grasp on to (one end of the pendulum inspiring hope, the other fuelling fear).
We have particular ways of talking about courage. “I had to believe in myself,” we might say if we have done something difficult. We describe certain situations as “calling for courage.” We might hesitate, we might put it off, but eventually we find the courage. It takes courage, we say, to stand up for what we believe in.
We talk as though we must firstly have courage in order to do something that takes courage. It’s like a requirement, a prerequisite: without courage in our possession—without believing in ourselves—we can’t act. For me, belief and courage don’t work like this. To take action, to do something new, I need to stop believing in myself. Stop believing in my visions of disaster or success. I can’t be waiting for the presence of courage before I act.
So I leaned my bike against Sofia’s gate rather than continuing down the hill.
I found her sweeping again. “I’m busy darling, very busy,” she muttered, turning away. I stood in her driveway, under that plum sky, not knowing what to do. Should I wait? Should I leave? I moved a little closer and picked up a few stray leaves, dropping them into the plastic bag she was dragging around. She turned this way and that, said the odd word I didn’t understand. She kept looking down the street, like she was waiting for someone. “Are you expecting a visitor?” I asked.
“My husband Chris,” she sighed, “is 85. He goes for walks. Sometimes he falls down. But he loves the walking. So I am looking for him to come back.”
We continued picking up the leaves. “Okay,” she said once the last one was in the bag. “Now you come in for coffee.”
I gave Sofia the bag of apricots, peaches and plums. She smiled and told me to follow her. We stood on her back deck and looked over a yard full of heavy-laden fruit trees. Inside, she steered me to a round table and pressed me into a chair. I sat in her dark living room and saw that every surface was crammed with framed photographs. “Two children, four grandchildren and one great grandchild coming,” she called from the kitchen, reading my mind.
She brought me a cup of coffee. She showed me a map of Kastoria and pointed to the neighbourhood she had grown up in. “In orphanage,” she said, sliding a saucer of almond biscuits towards me. “Then I came to Australia, to get married.”
She looked towards the door, gave the saucer another push. It was getting time for me to leave.
The storm had arrived when I left Sofia’s. I rode slowly, thinking about how courage finds its expression in ways large and small: a daily walk, a daily wait. A childhood, an emigration. An invitation, a conversation. “Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life,” writes the poet David Whyte.
I rode home the long way. It was almost lunchtime; the streets were as busy with people as the sky was with clouds. Drivers searched for free parks near the hospital. Clusters of students gathered outside the school chapel, using their upturned folders as makeshift umbrellas. Parents with prams dashed from awning to awning along the shopping strip, trying to keep dry. I wondered what secret acts of courage were unfolding before me.